by David Stuart. First published in FS Magazine by GMFA
20 years ago, every gay Londoner traipsing across Hampstead Heath, or risking the dangers of cottaging would have only dreamed of the easy access sex available now through sites and apps like Grindr, Gaydar and BBRT. Our wildest sexual fantasies only a mouse-click away; scroll down and tap that app, it’ll all be yours. Bring it on.
That, and more: Party ‘n play, chem sex, three-day drug-fuelled sex parties only a short GPS stroll away, BYO chems. Or not, there’ll be plenty there anyway.
Getting hold of drugs 20 years ago, was equally difficult and dangerous. If you didn’t know the right person, who knew the right person, you’d struggle to get high with any ease.
At the same time, gay activists were fighting for gay rights, including the right for gay sex to be less of a criminal experience; less about something done shamefully in the shadows. Sure, we had a snide ‘permission’ to do as we pleased behind closed doors, but somehow, it didn’t feel like gay sexual liberation.
Well here we are, 2013: Equal marriage, gays in the military, endorsement from politicians; we even commune at Downing St. to champion the right for Russia’s LGBT people to enjoy the freedoms we have. And gay sexual liberation is most definitely here, practised at your local 24-hour sauna, as well as being all over your smartphone and PC.
So do we celebrate? I know some charity workers from 20 years ago who are celebrating that they no longer have to pick up used condoms on Hampstead Heath each Sunday morning. That mustn’t have been a pretty job. Perhaps then, the modern equivalent of cleaning up used condoms from the Heath, is the scores of health workers in sexual health, emergency and drug services who have to ‘clean up’ the messes found at the end of the three-day chem sex benders that are happening 24/7 all over London.
It’s too easy to blame the apps and sites. But it’s also too easy for us to blame those indulging in chem sex. It’s too easy to say that it’s a small number of people, that it doesn’t affect ‘me’. That it doesn’t affect us as a community. Five gay men are diagnosed HIV-positive every day in London. Hepatitis C is on the rise. PEP clinics are busier than they’ve ever been before, and gays are being sectioned with Tina or Meph induced psychosis almost every weekend. There have been 33 GHB/GBL-related deaths in the last two years. These are our gay brothers, and it does affect us. It affects us, if HIV and hep C is an even greater risk for us, simply because there’s more of it out there. It affects us if we can’t hook up on Grindr without being invited to chem sex parties, or having some trashed, paranoid shag turn up to an innocent hook-up. Or when a shag flops about selfishly on our beds before passing out from too much G.
It’s not an easy admission, but we have to acknowledge that chem sex has become a somewhat normalised part of our online hooking-up experience. What’s less easy perhaps, is navigating our way through online communications, while protecting ourselves from the temptations and dangers that are, literally, at our fingertips. Even harder than that, is having some empathy and understanding for those caught up in this chem sex lifestyle.
Before the straight (and gay?) media generate a full blown backlash of condemnation and stigma upon chem sexers, let’s try to remember the underlying issues that drive this harmful behaviour. Our community has emerged from a stifled, closeted background of shame and repression. We’re communally traumatised by an AIDS epidemic, still experiencing stigma for it, and still confused about what constitutes safer sex. We all experienced a muted intimacy as children growing up different, fearful of discovery and rejection. We can’t just shake that off. We let easy exposure to porn and sexualised gay media inform our esteems and sex lives. We define ourselves as men who have sex with men, but perhaps the definition of being gay should be more comprehensive? With that definition, it’s no wonder we’re a highly sexualised community.
And on top of it all, we have to come to terms with a new tech age, where we make our point in 140 characters, Photoshop our image, click away as soon as the next best thing appears on our screen. We offer (and expect) porn star sex, right now. And all this, with no instruction book.
My own instruction book says this: If you shag someone who’s high on chems, you’re actually saying; “You’re gonna feel like shit tomorrow, and I don’t care.” Be better than that.
Know what you want from sex, really want, and make it happen. Show respect and self-care in your online communications. Write boundaries into your profile, and if you prefer sex with someone you’ve clicked with, then make that effort to click.
It’s not about them liking you, it’s about you liking them.
Let’s not be victims of the new ‘immediacy’ that comes with the tech age. We’re a vulnerable community, emerging from a difficult past, and still finding our feet. Let’s adapt bravely to the new online hooking-up world, by demonstrating that we can make it work for our betterment. Better sex. Better love for our gay brothers. Better lives, better well-being. And in this time of crisis, a better community.